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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

3.76 of 5 stars 3.76  ·  rating details  ·  2,435 ratings  ·  410 reviews
A survey of the quirks and quandaries of the English language, focusing on our strange and wonderful grammar

Why do we say "I am reading a catalog" instead of "I read a catalog"? Why do we say "do" at all? Is the way we speak a reflection of our cultural values? Delving into these provocative topics and more, Our Magnificent Bastard Language distills hundreds of years of f
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Hardcover, 230 pages
Published October 30th 2008 by Gotham
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Manny
A fantastic book! I have not come across anyone, not even Steven Pinker, who does such a good job of showing you how exciting linguistics can be. His bold and unconventional history of the English language was full of ideas I'd never seen before, but which made excellent sense. And, before I get into the review proper, a contrite apology to Jordan. She gave it to me six months ago as a birthday present, and somehow I didn't open it until last week. Well, Jordan, thank you, and I'll try to be mor ...more
Terence
Feb 16, 2009 Terence rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Language/linguistics fans
This is an extraordinarily delightful little book that highlights some of English's lesser known idiosyncrasies because, as the author notes, English is not just a collection of words, nor is its genius an markedly unusual openness to new vocabulary.

I first encountered John McWhorter with his book The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language Paperback, which traced the evolution of languages from a "first language" and which is also highly recommended. (Actually, having read The Singing Nea
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Becky
What a fun book! This is one of those rare times where I would suggest having the audio and actually following along in the book. The audio is wonderful because you actually get to hear all the wonderful languages McWhorter is referencing, also well as just here him gush and laugh while narrating. You can tell just how passionate he is about linguistics as well as making linguistics a known subject to the genpop. It was a lot of fun. But if you had the book to follow along in as well then you wo ...more
David
I read McWhorter's "The Power of Babel" a few years ago and thought it was terrific. His subsequent effort, "Doing our own Thing", was a major disappointment - self-indulgent, undisciplined, and essentially pointless. So I would have skipped this one (a cover blurb that squeezes the chestnuts "rollicking tour" and "rousing celebration" into the same sentence is generally not a good sign). Did I really need reassurance from yet another linguist that it's OK to split an infinitive, or to end a sen ...more
Lavinia
Never thought Linguistics can be so much fun! Too many details to discuss. But if you ever wondered why, for instance, "you" has the same form for both singular and plural, why we say "aren't I" instead of the more logical "amn't I", why we use the meaningless "do" or "they" as a singular pronoun instead of he/she when the gender is not clear, you might get some answers or at least accept the fact that, in the author's own words, "shitte happens". He uses facts, comparison, logic and fun to expl ...more
Лорче
I am not an expert, but I did major in Linguistics in college. I found McWhorter's arguments horribly oversimplified and tedious to read. I'm glad that he is putting linguistic scholarship out there for the general public, but someone with even a rudimentary knowledge (or even a grammar or history nerd) would know.

Being familiar with some of the counter-arguments he suggests, I can say that he presents them in a manner intended to make them appear somewhat foolish, rather than addressing them pr
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Mahala Helf
Six assertions of unexplained significance are belabored into the first three repetitious soporific chapters(literally--1st & last book in all my years that put me to sleep within a page time after time):

1. Most linguists study individual languages & are ignorant of others.
2. This ignorance causes them to exceptionalize and mistake the reasons for changes in the English language.
3. John McWhorter aloneable to synthesis research and theory about all languages to discern the errors.
3. Chan
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Michael
John McWhorter has done it again! For those who love language, there is no author better to educate and entertain on all matters linguistic. In the current work, he proves that Celtic grammatical structures have given English its "meaningless do" (as in "Do you know what I mean?") and its normative progressive present tense (as in "I am writing" rather than the more usual in other Germanic languages "I write"). He, in fact, rather belabors the point in the first chapter to an extent that can onl ...more
Georg
A very interesting book with some new theories about the development of the English language from its Germanic roots. I like his comparisons of the members of the “gang” and even more since I am familiar with two of them (ok, one and a half). McWhorter shows without any prejudice that not only all human beings are equal but also all languages though they are very different. It’s an interesting point that a language with an “easy” grammar might be a bigger challenge for the speaker and that the E ...more
Maria
While written in an entertaining and humorous tone, the author belabors a few points a little too much for my taste. He spends almost 70 pages establishing why he is unique among all linguists because of his belief that English has been influenced by Celtic languages. It really could have been written in half the length but he seems to enjoy his own voice.

There are multiple examples provided to support his theories, & he has made this accessible to non-academics, but his tone of "us" (anyone
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Sandy D.
Recommended by a blogger at the Ann Arbor library, and rightly so - McWhorter is a funny writer and a historical linguist. I'm a little shocked at how well he writes, given the fact that he studies linguistics, in fact. Anthropologists in general do not write well for the general reader (with the exception of Robert Sapolsky, whom I adore, and Kent Flannery, who has written a few truly funny paragraphs that are stuck in the middle of boring-to-anyone-outside-the-field archaeological monographs). ...more
Mary Soderstrom

For my next non-fiction project, I'm been rummaging around in paleolinguistics and paleohistory: I'll tell you just why in a future post. Suffice to say that my most recent reading has led me back to the delightful Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter.

His unstated thesis is that English is a Creole language, with nothing pejorative intended in the phrase. What happened to English is that it was transformed when a prolonged wave of newcomers struggled to
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Troy Blackford
This was very interesting. I did expect a book about all the words that we have taken into English from other languages, but I'm glad that I got so much more than that. McWhorter instead focuses on how our grammar has absorbed elements from other languages, specifically Welsh, and makes a case for a linguistic argument that I sense is aimed more at other linguists, whom he hopes to convince, rather than at laypeople. Though it definitely convinced me, I should add.

Following that, he delves into
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Angela Forfia
The vast majority of linguistics books for the mass market are books about the history of words. If you pick up a typical history of the English language, you will learn about words we got from the Vikings, words we got from the French, words we got from the colonial era...with very little information about the structure of the English language itself. While these books are full of fun factoids--did you know shampoo comes from Hindi?--they never get to the heart of what makes language fascinatin ...more
Ryan Long
This was a decent piece of revisionist linguistic history. The arguments are well-reasoned, and the prose is nice. People with an affinity for language will like this book. More specifically, native English speakers who know at least a couple of foreign languages will have a good time reading this book.

A few criticisms:

First, the book is written at least at a high school reading level, perhaps even a junior high reading level. I realize that making the language a bit more intellectual would put
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Kevin Cole
John McWhorter is the rarest sort of teacher: He takes something you think is complicated and makes it blessedly simple.
Why is English the way it is? McWhorter explains. Is English really as simple as people say it is? Yes and no. McWhorter explains. Isn't the difference between Beowulf and Shakespeare just a bunch of French words? Not even close. McWhorter explains.
More than any other "populist" linguist, McWhorter explains features of English that native speakers never think about, but what I
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Bill
I am fascinated by the English language, how it came to be and how it evolved into the language we use and abuse today. This book gives insight into what forces influenced our language and how we ended up with such a unique language. Celtic influences that were absorbed into the language of invading Germanic tribes? Vikings beating simplicity into the existing English language when they arrived in England? Mr. McWhorter had me at invading Germanic Tribes! I enjoyed this book thoroughly, and if y ...more
Seth
I grew up with a Linguist for a father, so the history of the English language, or indeed any language, is of interest to me. Having said that, I'm not a Linguist myself, and though this has been an occasional topic of study for me I'm by no means qualified to assess the book's merits with any sort of academic rigor.

Most histories of English focus on the language's adoption of other words through contact with various peoples. But to paraphrase McWhorter's introduction, focusing only on the words
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Daniel (Devourer of Books)
really enjoyable and thought provoking book on the history of English. I agree with most of the findings and theories presented here.
Lynne
I loved that the rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition was described as a "nineteenth century fetish".
Martin
I’ve always believed that English was a bastard of a language due to its masala of Germanic and French languages, irregular spelling and pronunciation, and abundance of helping verbs. This book does not deny any of those issues, but also points how the Vikings helped to streamline the language, how we managed to drop gendered nouns, and how we use words rooted in French for more formal meanings because the Normans had ruled in French while the general population spoke Old English. He also spends ...more
G33z3r
Not very interesting to the casual reader.

McWhorter has a couple of bugbears he wants to harp on. The main one, to which he devotes over a third of the book, is the use of the "do ..." verb construct in English, which he feels originates with the Celtic language. He spends an enormous amount of time arguing with other theories of how that unique English idiom came about, and he is certainly enthusiastic about his own theory, but to the simple pop-sci reader, unversed in any such theories, it's a
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Lauren Albert
This was a fun book--he has a good sense of humor and makes things clear for laymen. Among other things, he gives his arguments for why he believes that the Celts influenced our vocabulary and why he believes the Vikings simplified our grammar (not intentionally, of course).

One of the first things I used to tell my students in Freshman English as that language rules are simply conventions. Of course, I explained that because they WERE the conventions, we had to learn to follow them in certain si
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Kathrina
Well, apparently there's a lot more to John McWhorter than that he just happens to be the guy that wrote this book. I guess once you've created a reputation as an esteemed, literate, intellectual African-American schooled in serious linguistics research, people will start throwing you in front of a camera and asking what you think about Obama and what your politics are (social conservatism). Of course I had to watch a few, and couldn't get beyond the fact that his upper lip absolutely does not m ...more
Becky
While I find the subject of this book very interesting, the author's tone and style are extraordinarily grating. He can't make a point but once, and has to hammer it home over and over again, in the most condescending language possible. He whines and bitches his way through his explanations: "The Welsh! The Cornish! Arrg! My colleagues are idiots!!" "Viking pillaging of the English tongue! just LOOK at the geography, you morons!" Then he takes a really random break in his study of English to den ...more
Kevin
When someone says to me in the course of conversation, "Here's an idea I had" I think to myself, "okay, let's see."

When someone runs up to me and grabs me by the bicep and says, "I'm telling you, man! This is how it went down!" I'm inclined to back away.

Listen, I don't know Fact One about the linguistic anthropology community. This is the first of John McWhorter's books that I've ever read. I don't know if he's King of the Hill or some weirdo that hangs out in the gutters. What I can tell you, t
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Nicholas Whyte
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is a short book (less than 200 pages), looking at grammar. McWhorter makes five main points, one of which was completely new and intriguing to me.

1) That the '-ing' present progressive and 'do' constructions in English come from Celtic languages. I had twigged to the former while dabbling in Irish last year; but it seems that both Welsh and Cornish also use the verb 'do' in the equivalent of questions and negatives - Do you agree? I don't agree. McWhorter argues th
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Alana
It is always frustrating to read popular linguistics books as a layperson because you never know when that cool thing you just read is going to turn out to be at least partly untrue. This book is repetitive, but it goes far to explain who disagrees with the author, why they disagree, and why the fact that they disagree doesn't mean that they are just a bunch of closed minded idiots. This is important if you're used to approaching these books with a healthy dose of skepticism. Yes, the points mad ...more
Shelley
Signs Shelley will like a book: it's a linguistics/grammar study of the English language, the first chapter is subtitled "The Welshness of English" and an early line is, "English, however, is kinky. It has a predilection for dressing up like Welsh on lonely nights." It's funny, smart and involves two of my favorite languages. Brilliant.

I really found this to be utterly fascinating, and was able to relate it back to learning Welsh. If you look at my notes from my first few lessons, I had "yn" ma
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Anne
Written by a linguist but intended for a lay audience, I found this an intriguing, short read. Yes, there was much talk of grammar but it wasn't too over the top as to put me into a grammar trance. And even though it's not really a scholarly work, the author really, really wants to win his major argument (English grammar was influenced by Celtic-speaking people) therefore he thoroughly covered all aspects of his thesis (some might say it got a little repetitive).

Actually, his major argument is
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Dr. John McWhorter is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He earned his B.A. from Rutgers University, his M.A. from New York University, and his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford University. Before taking his position at the Manhattan Institute, he held teaching positions at Cornell University, where he held the position of Assistant Professor, and at the University of California, Berkele ...more
More about John H. McWhorter...
The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language What Language Is (And What it Isn't and What it Could Be) Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America The Story of Human Language Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care

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“Oh, those lapses, darling. So many of us walk around letting fly with “errors.” We could do better, but we’re so slovenly, so rushed amid the hurly-burly of modern life, so imprinted by the “let it all hang out” ethos of the sixties, that we don’t bother to observe the “rules” of “correct” grammar.

To a linguist, if I may share, these “rules” occupy the exact same place as the notion of astrology, alchemy, and medicine being based on the four humors. The “rules” make no logical sense in terms of the history of our language, or what languages around the world are like.

Nota bene: linguists savor articulateness in speech and fine composition in writing as much as anyone else. Our position is not—I repeat, not—that we should chuck standards of graceful composition. All of us are agreed that there is usefulness in a standard variety of a language, whose artful and effective usage requires tutelage. No argument there.

The argument is about what constitutes artful and effective usage. Quite a few notions that get around out there have nothing to do with grace or clarity, and are just based on misconceptions about how languages work.

Yet, in my experience, to try to get these things across to laymen often results in the person’s verging on anger. There is a sense that these “rules” just must be right, and that linguists’ purported expertise on language must be somehow flawed on this score. We are, it is said, permissive—perhaps along the lines of the notorious leftist tilt among academics, or maybe as an outgrowth of the roots of linguistics in anthropology, which teaches that all cultures are equal. In any case, we are wrong. Maybe we have a point here and there, but only that.”
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“In an ideal world, the time English speakers devote to steeling themselves against, and complaining about, things like Billy and me, singular they, and impact as a verb would be better spent attending to genuine matters of graceful oral and written expression.” 0 likes
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